Sunday, 18 August 2013

Latest on the Backbencher - Our Mutual Interest

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Getting Agents of Reason out there has been and is proving difficult but along the way I have met some really nice like-minded folk - Unusual Historicals is a group of writers with many different styles but who have been kind enough to take me on.

The ideology of evidence and evidence of ideology

Saturday, 11 May 2013

First published in The Backbencher May 5th 2013

The madness of measuring learning

John Issitt

It might be an inherent need to control. It might be an artifact of modern management systems. It might be the legacies of the Enlightenment. Whatever its causal origins we have ended up being dominated by measurement.

Weighed and tested we arrive at preschool where we are put on a learning programme in which our progress is closely measured against ‘standards’. Whoa betide us if at the precious age of 5 we show no inclination to associate the ink stains in those things called books, with particular sounds. If we don’t progress according to the mysterious rules written by the experts we are quickly labeled with ‘special needs’ and given extra ‘help’.

With luck we guess the game according to expectation and move into our first 12 years of constant measurement. Weekly tests, termly reports, average scores all build to an estimation of performance delivered by means of A stars or Cs. The abundance of numerical values measures our personal worth and supports the expectations of what we should be and do and think. Crucially the business of learning anything is given only in terms of assessing it. It is not possible to just learn stuff, to think about it, to explore it or challenge its foundations  - what would be the point of that???

Beaten into submission we come to believe that the whole point of the learning enterprise is to say the right things in the right way and thereby establish that we have the right learning. The numbers which certify our learning cannot lie. Drilled with the instrumentalist discourse that establishes that the only point of doing anything is doing it right where doing it right equates to getting the right score, learning dissolves into assessment according to criteria with a numerical value. Learning effectively is assessment which is measurement. The means really has become the end.

Escaping the performance league tables we buy a place at University where we might hope to really learn. We expect to move from ‘schooling’ to expansive creative cutting edge thinking and rich exploration of our world. Sadly though we find the same instrumentalist carry-on. Feedback given exclusively in the interests of securing success in the next assessment. Yet more criterion given in mark bands. The deep fear that if you score anything less than a 2.1 the whole business has been an expensive waste of time and it has been true all along – you really are not that bright!

The measurement game twists and turns and entwines us in its formulas and outputs. As student-customers we measure the quality of our student experience, the quality of the teaching, the speed and relevance of the feedback in helping us to achieve guess what – the right score.

The constant requirement to measure everything – every feature of our lives and particularly our learning – strangles our thinking. Nothing is legitimate if it is not measured. But now we are in strange times in which it is difficult if not impossible to see the way forwards. Surely it is time to rethink what this business of learning really is about.  The relentless pursuit of top scores by the best who can compete the most effectively may have been the right guiding principle in the evolution of our culture in the past. But now we face new challenges and a new reality – the oil is running out. Measuring ourselves and making that measurement the statement of our worth doesn’t seem to offer the solutions we need.

What about releasing ourselves from the validation procedure of measurement? Maybe we should trust ourselves and each other and most importantly, our young people, a little more?

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Education – an essentially political act

First published in the Backbencher April 28 2013

Education – an essentially political act

The two most obvious reasons why education is such a political football are firstly, that everybody is an expert on education – one way or another we have all had one. Secondly, schools are one of the few places where significant numbers of human beings regularly do something together that really matters. Add public funding, the needs of the economy and the fact that wealth reproduces wealth largely by means an unequal education system, and you can see why the education card is played again and again by those in power.

Education and more specifically schooling, is a constant and very hot potato. There is rarely a day goes by when media reports don’t reveal a new policy or concern that British values are going to the dogs because of irresponsible teaching or lack of discipline. In government back room planning meetings educational policy is one of the keys to obtaining and keeping power. The current gang of politico top dogs, most of whom had a highly privileged education, use the card repeatedly and brutally. Their most common sports are ‘Teacher Bashing’ – there is nothing like having an ‘enemy within’, and the fear inducing balloney of ‘falling standards’ – which of course justifies their next education policy ‘reform’.

The political dimensions of education are many layered and hold immense but subtle power over us largely because for most of us the words politics and education don’t sit well together. We feel that our children shouldn’t be subject to whatever political chess play is going on in Whitehall. But ironically and perhaps paradoxically, it is precisely our will to protect education from politics that plays into the hands of the political tricksters.

The core uncomfortable tension comes from the fact that education is itself an intrinsically political business. It nurtures careful thinking and insight – thinking which necessarily exposes received assumptions and thereby challenges dogma and the authority of our political masters. Learning is a political act because its aspiration is towards freedom – freedom to think and act. As such it draws defensive responses from those in power - seen most vividly in the innumerable instances of teachers and scholars in nearly all cultures becoming the target of punitive measures – measures specifically directed to stifle that aspiration to freedom.

At a more practical level of politics, education serves to structure our society. It maintains the social order by instilling the values of decency, competition and what counts as success and it distributes life chances accordingly. Education exists in the social world and necessarily reflects the way the world is. Here is the dilemma: in fact our world is an unequal place, but the advertised mission of education is an egalitarian one – it aspires to something it cannot deliver.

Given its political sensitivity it’s no surprise that education is such an ideological arena and that the political agendas that drive those ideologies are kept hidden. Performance management, target setting and ridiculous levels of assessment ensure a thick layer of apolitical discourse throughout the whole educational system. As a result political understanding and the will to political action is trained out of our young people. The egalitarian and democratic mission statements posted in school entrances function as sanitized glossy sound bites rather than producing real distributive equality. Abstract political understanding is entertained only within strictly defined syllabi and students arrive at University tutored to believe that learning is exclusively about hoop jumping the system and hard wired against anything political..

I exaggerate to make the point – there are lots very bright, politically astute and motivated young people around but the general level of political awareness is subdued and especially so in respect of the deeper functioning of schooling.

All the educators I know see their work in terms of offering genuine benefit to those they teach. In the broadest terms, their motivation is to help students develop, acquire skills, and contribute to society. The educational project is a politically good one – its target is a good life for everyone and is delivered under the authority of ‘equal opportunities’. But it is because education is such a social good and so central to our lives and our aspirations, that it is so politically important and why Gove and the boys have it constantly in their sights.